MacArthur grant supports Princeton Laptop Orchestra initiatives

The Princeton Laptop Orchestra is one of 17 winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition, which awards funds to projects that use digital media in an innovative way for formal and informal learning.

The contest, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, awarded $238,000 to the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk for short) to support a mobile musical laboratory that students will use to explore new ways of making music with laptops and local area networks.

This is the first year for the competition, part of the MacArthur Foundation's five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative designed to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. The winning projects were selected from 1,010 applications.

PLOrk, an ensemble of computer-based musical meta-instruments, grew out of a freshman seminar taught in 2005 by Perry Cook, a professor with joint appointments in computer science and music, and Dan Trueman, an assistant professor of music. The students who make up the ensemble act as performers, researchers, composers and software developers, exploring ways in which the computer can be integrated into conventional music-making contexts — such as chamber ensembles or jam sessions — while radically transforming those contexts.

To create a mobile musical laboratory, students will collaborate to design new technologies and learn about a variety of subjects, including musical acoustics, networking, instrument design, human-computer interfacing, procedural programming, signal processing and musical aesthetics. One of the project's aims is to enable students to make electronic music not just in rehearsal rooms, but from anywhere on campus.

"The MacArthur grant will allow us to completely reinvent the PLOrk technology to make it much more portable and easy to use, highly significant changes that will directly impact the way we teach our courses and the way students use the technologies," Trueman said. "Indeed, the history of musical instruments shows us that the music we imagine is inextricably linked to the instruments we make it with, so it is hard to overstate how important this redesign might be for us."

Currently, each "instrument" consists of a laptop, a multi-channel hemispherical speaker and a variety of control devices, such as keyboards, graphics tablets and sensors. The set is heavy and awkward to carry.

"This practical limitation has many deep ramifications for PLOrk as an environment for learning and research," Trueman and Cook wrote in their proposal. "It is a serious disincentive for developing projects and pieces that might be performed or shared in public spaces, let alone environments that might involve non-PLOrk members in some kind of interactive way. And, more importantly, it discourages the kind of informal learning that happens when someone simply walks into a dorm common room with something to share (or something to 'jam' with!)."

Also central to PLOrk is the exploration of how to work with local area wireless networks in musical ways. The group is large enough that the speed of sound from one end of the ensemble to the other is actually greater than the speed of the wireless local area network.

"As part of the MacArthur-supported research, we will be attempting to develop a highly reliable and strongly timed protocol for local networking," Trueman said.

Finally, inspired by recent developments in gaming interfaces with computers, the group will be continuing to explore new methods and instrument designs for connecting with the computer in musically and physically inspiring ways.

"As part of this proposal, we plan to put in place the necessary infrastructure (sensor technologies, new and traditional HCI components) so that PLOrk can be a highly physical playground for studying new technologies and music," Trueman and Cook wrote.

Undergraduates from many disciplines, along with graduate students and faculty members in the computer science and music departments, will participate in the project. A number of guest artists, including the electronica duo Matmos and the percussion quartet So Percussion, also will be involved.